The line of dialogue that best addresses the flood of human misery unleashed in Jubilee Theatre’s extraordinary production of The Bluest Eye comes early in the show. One of the characters says, “There is really nothing more to say except, ‘Why?’ But since ‘why’ is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in ‘how.’”
This means, in part, that there’s no acceptable “why” to explain the catalog of horrors in both Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel and Lydia R. Diamond’s 2005 stage adaptation. A child feeds poisoned meat to a dog and watches it die in agony. A young African-American couple is forced at gunpoint to have sex in front of two white strangers. An adolescent girl is raped by her drunken father on the kitchen floor. Rather than rationalize all of that pain, the novelist and playwright choose to coolly and poetically recount the chain of personal events and cultural influences that lead to the downfall of young protagonist Pecola Breedlove (Shundra Grubb): In a rural Illinois town in the 1940s, she is a pregnant, ostracized black teenager who prays to God obsessively to give her blue eyes.
If all that sounds like a strangling excess of victimhood to happen in just one narrative, well, it is. The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, and in spite of the precise and elegant prose, the book sometimes feels like the author is working out her much-professed idolatry of William Faulkner. Like him, she takes repellent extremes of behavior and refashions them as distant, Old Testament-style tropes. Diamond’s script and Jubilee’s spot-on staging retain this homage quality, creating an African-American version of Yoknapatawpha County where past and future intermingle, points of view shift constantly, and physical deformities like a withered foot or a rotten tooth reflect spiritual wounds.
What I’m about to say might scandalize Morrison fans, but The Bluest Eye works better on the Jubilee stage than it does on the novelist’s page. Director Ed Smith’s vibrant and – miraculously – sometimes very funny production is still all Toni down to its doom-filled, luxuriously written soul. At her most self-indulgent, however, the author tends to build human-ish literary constructions rather than authentic people. It’s rare that any show is perfectly cast down to the smallest role, but Smith has found nine performers to lend sympathetic nuances to each character’s every observation (if not, of course, to his or her every outrageous act). Here, the artful dialogue exists to support the actors, not vice versa. It helps that playwright Diamond has cut subplots from the book and amplified the theme of Anglo female faces that haunt the black women in the popular culture: Jane from the Dick and Jane books, Shirley Temple, Jean Harlow, and blonde, blue-eyed dolls that tease and entice like pop-culture succubi.
Nothing unfolds in linear fashion here. Not even reflections can be trusted – set designer Michael Skinner lines the back wall of the stage with variously sized mirrors that are grimy, rippled, distorted. The Bluest Eye unfolds during one school year when Pecola’s fed-up mother, Pauline Breedlove (a heartbreakingly weary Stormi Demerson), prompts a knockdown fight with the girl’s abusive father, Cholly Breedlove (Jason Williams), and the state authorities intervene. Pecola is sent to live with two of her schoolmates: sisters Frieda (Lisa B. Whitfield) and Claudia (Sydney Sherow). In alternately hilarious and trenchant narration, Frieda and Claudia insist that the whole Breedlove family is marred by an elusive but preternatural ugliness that feels something like the mark of Cain. Revelation by revelation, the sisters burrow into the tortured past of Pecola’s parents while advancing inexorably toward Pecola’s personal tragedy, her pregnancy from a violent act of incest. Meanwhile, Pecola has begun to construct her own delusional fantasy world with generous help from the larger American society around her: Pecola believes she can enter a kind of shiny, happy nobility if she just looked more like the lily-white face on the wrappers of Mary Jane candy.
However noble the intentions of Morrison’s gorgeous verbiage, Jubilee’s The Bluest Eye would be a nose-rub in unrelieved cruelty if director Smith wasn’t a master at manipulating tone. Humor and despair coincide in little moments of truth without compromising each other. Adult actors Whitfield and Sherow are totally convincing as squabbling teenage sisters. Rescuing their reluctant new houseguest becomes a turf war between them. When Pecola gets her first period, the two of them fight to counsel her. Claudia at one point shouts to her sister, “Oh, what are you, the queen of menstruation?” In another funny but chilling scene, Claudia explains how she relished dismembering her Christmas gift of a white doll and confesses that she harbors the fantasy of doing something similar to a real white girl. Soon, Maureen (LaWonda Hunter), an upper-middle-class child of mixed racial parentage, joins the school and flaunts her “high yella dream-child” privilege of lighter skin over an enchanted Pecola and a disgusted Frieda and Claudia. When Hunter pops up later in a different role as the bratty Anglo girl whose parents employ Pecola’s mother Pauline, the long blonde wig she sports is absurdly comic and eerie at the same time. It’s as if the tyrannical Maureen had become even whiter and moved into a bigger house just to torment her black peers.
In the central role of Pecola, Grubb breathes life into what is at best a reactive character, at worst a generic symbol of purity defiled by family and culture. She relays the character’s immature desires with dreamy sincerity rather than dippiness. The traces of pathology that begin to creep into her later scenes suggest she and director Smith are channeling Tennessee Williams, and it saves the character of Pecola from being just another all-purpose victim. In one scene, she sits on the stage laughing and devouring her Mary Jane candy. That laughter takes on the barest hint of a cackle, and we suddenly realize how desperate she is to buy what a racist society is selling her. She can feel the transformation into whiteness beginning. The scene is both scary and transcendent in its honesty. Jubilee’s The Bluest Eye proves that theater at its best is an alchemical art form. Powerful forces linger, waiting to be discovered, in the basest elements offered by life.